​Carbon toxide: The real problem molecule poisoning Canadian society

Carbon has become too politically charged; overly vilified by virulent voices on the far side of the environmental spectrum, who have somehow managed to hijack the narrative and paint carbon as a planetary poison.

(Canada at a Carbon Crossroads: In this series, I explore the current state of the carbon debate in Canada. In Part 1, I suggest Canadians need to reflect on a better way of coming to terms with the importance of getting the carbon conversation right, by understanding the various vested-interest voices and how those voices may skew discussions in the wrong direction).

Most Canadians are understandably in a profound state of carbon confusion.
After all, for most of us, high school chemistry was a long time ago. But if we were able to replay the modules in which we learned about the element carbon in a scientific context, we might have a different view from how we may be thinking about carbon as a socially constructed evil.

The reality is most Canadians as a rule are functionally illiterate when it comes to matters carbon. And that illiteracy has meant we're caught in an unfortunate carbon crossfire of our own making.

We are roughly 18.5 per cent carbon creatures; constituted of what is the fourth most prolific element on earth by mass. Put another way, we are of – not separate from – the very atoms and related molecules that are being so emotively, often irrationally, discussed in environmental and political arenas these days.

Are too many carbon dioxide molecules – one carbon atom, bonded to two oxygen atoms – in the earth's atmosphere problematic in terms of climate management?

Of course. No sane person denies that reality. We haven't been terribly good stewards of carbon management around the world, particularly in developed countries. As our societies have advanced over the last two centuries, we have been remiss in proactively anticipating the negative impact of all those emissions and their role in warming the climate.

Even if the impact is far less than the received science suggests, managing emissions aggressively lays the groundwork for better environmental stewardship more generally.
There are absolute climate deniers, of course, but they are increasingly fewer in number. By and large, most sapient beings know the science is right: we have to do something – and soon. 

The problem is the way of that “doing." We're framing the challenge (and, yes, opportunity) incorrectly. Carbon has become too politically charged; overly vilified by virulent voices on the far side of the environmental spectrum, who have somehow managed to hijack the narrative and paint carbon as a planetary poison.

To raise a hand in support of carbon, or to ask for sober second thoughts vis a vis carbon strategies, is the equivalent of self-flagellation in the public square: both painful and humiliating.

And so, ordinary Canadians who are late to the carbon party might be forgiven for thinking that carbon is the root of all evils plaguing society. That's because there are those voices that would rather shrilly and myopically separate us from our carbon selves.

Indeed, they are so distant from the centre – where the debates should be occurring – that their perspectives are weirdly misanthropic when it comes anyone who dares question their indignation.

Those folks, too, seem to have forgotten basic high school science, for their perspectives are rooted less in scientific reality than in social emotion. Here a distinction is important: it is critical to draw a line between the pragmatic environmentalists who get the science and the holier-than-thou zealots.

Those familiar with social media lingo would recognize them as carbon "trolls" or “haters."

Despite the resulting profound polarization, as a federation Canada should be more than capable of achieving some substantial headway on emissions reduction. But it will take provincial governments working synchronously with each other, and with the federal government, to achieve that.

Unfortunately, when politics is made covalent with carbon atoms, the result is an ugly new political pseudo-molecule: carbon toxide.

Carbon has become a political expedient. Three provinces have convinced themselves their individual systems choices are the best (and they may well be when locally contextualized) but letting provincial interests prevail creates an asynchronous crazy quilt of frameworks, regulations, taxes and levies that muddle the picture at a time when clarity and coherence are required.

Put another way, sometimes the greater good should prevail, such as a national approach that is consistent from coast to coast – an approach that Canadians as Canadians can debate and discuss, not foment over as Albertans, Ontarians and British Columbians, widening provincial divides that are already dangerously deep.

That's why it's important we debate and discuss carbon-oriented dynamics more broadly; to root the necessary dialogue in pan-Canadian economic, social, political and, yes, scientific frameworks.

Here's the point: carbon is ubiquitous. And as an element, it plays an important role in how we live, breathe and exist—and in how much of how economies function both locally and globally.

To stamp out carbon, as some would argue is necessary, is to stamp out life. Of course, that stretches a point to make a point, but it is important to rebalance the carbon narrative in order for us to more effectively co-manage our collective energy future.

For example, we need to toss onto the trash heap the concept of a low-carbon economy. Low-carbon is pandering nomenclature. In reality, it should be just the carbon economy – because there already is a carbon economy, and it's one which we should be trying to evolve. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just reframe the discussion. 

Within a carbon economy framework that is more holistically balanced, we can shape the real discussion: how we think innovatively and creatively about turning problematic carbon from liability into asset – and understanding the pre-existing asset value carbon already represents.

That “asset” carbon already has its own economy and is inextricably bound up in many others. If ordinary folks accounted for carbon this way, and became more interested in all aspects of carbon, they would be amazed at the amount of research long under way in labs, universities and corporations around the world -- research focused on the positive aspects of what is a pretty versatile element.

Why is no one pointing out carbon's virtues? Some are, but many who know the economics and the science are understandably unwilling to take it on the chin publicly and risk being cast as a carbon pariah. 

Carbon has become far too marginalized. It is the flashpoint of angst against governments seemingly bent on imposing new taxes and cost burdens to manage deficits and debts rather than fund a new model for a new economic era.

Think about carbon toxide. It's also an emission we have to eliminate.

In Part 2, I explore the hidden carbon economy and ask why we’re not talking more positively about it.

Bill Whitelaw is Managing Director, Strategy & Business Development at geoLOGIC Systems Ltd. & JWN Energy. Bill is a director on many industry sector boards including the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources and the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame. He speaks frequently on the subjects of social licence, innovation and technology, and energy supply networks.

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